2019 has been quite the year for climate change awareness.

Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and Extinction Rebellion have ensured that the climate, and what we’re doing about it, has remained at the top of the news agenda. Property developers have a major role to play in the fight against climate change. Real estate is estimated to consume 40% of global energy and accounts for 20% of global carbon emissions. Around half of these emissions are “operational” (produced during a building’s usage) while the other half are “embodied” (produced during construction, refurbishment or fit-out).

That’s why Workspace Group has recently joined 23 large real estate firms in signing a ground-breaking commitment to tackle climate change. Drawn up by the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP), it commits the company not only to reduce the carbon emissions of its properties to net zero by 2050, meaning that buildings will have zero net energy consumption, but also to publish its pathway to achieve that goal by the end of 2020. Working together with other signatories to develop best industry practice, Workspace will disclose its progress annually and develop comprehensive climate change strategies for its portfolios by 2022.

Karen Jamison, Head of Sustainability at Workspace Group

Workspace understands that carbon emissions are becoming an increasingly important factor in customer decisions. “Our customers are becoming a lot more engaged on the topic,” says Karen Jamison, Head of Sustainability at Workspace Group. “They are asking about where their energy is coming from and where their waste and recycling is going.”

The BBP net zero commitment covers both operational and embodied emissions. Workspace has already taken steps to reduce its operational emissions by improving the energy efficiency of its buildings. It has installed solar panels across 8 properties, generating 107,540 kilowatt hours per annum of renewable energy. It has also ensured that all new electricity contracts are on a green tariff.  “Because we’re the landlord, we actually procure most of the energy on behalf of our customers,” says Jamison. “All of the electricity contracts in our buildings are on a green tariff which is 100% renewable.”

Thirteen new developments have been built to BREEAM standards, an international scheme to assess the sustainability of buildings (5 of them were rated Excellent, 7 Very Good, 1 Good). This looks at all aspects of environmental impact and considers biodiversity (features such as green roofs) as well as things like solar panels and sub-metering systems. “When we redevelop buildings, we are improving their energy efficiency considerably,” says Jamison.

There is, however, more to be done. “We’ll be improving energy efficiency across our portfolio by upgrading insulation and installing LED lighting,” says Jamison. “For new developments we’re concentrating on low-carbon heating in the form of air-source heat pumps and looking at opportunities for onsite renewable energy.”

Workspace's Brickfields building in Hoxton

Just as important as energy efficiency is reducing energy usage. “We’re following the principles of the energy hierarchy to make sure that we’re looking at reducing demand as well as efficiency,” says Jamison. Landlord areas only account for a small proportion of each building so the onus here is on the customers. “We’ll need our customers’ help to reduce our energy demand,” she says. “Things like switching off computers and lights in the evenings.”

Workspace is keen to engage with customers on their energy use and help them monitor it. “As part of the commitment we’ll be disclosing the energy performance of each building. We have also been installing smart sub-metering at our new developments which will allow customers to view their energy consumption for their unit.” The system allows facilities managers to have full visibility and control over their building’s energy use and lets them log in remotely to change temperature settings and timings.

Engaging with customers is key. Jamison has already set up two environmental groups at The Leather Market and Kennington Park to discuss energy usage, efficiency and recycling with customers. “It’s been really interesting to hear from our customers about any concerns they have and share with them any data that’s of interest,” says Jamison.

The other half of the emissions equation – embodied carbon – is more challenging to address. Embodied carbon is the carbon emitted in the manufacture of building materials and during the refurbishment or fit-out of buildings.

Lighting at Quality Court in Chancery Lane

Most of a building’s embodied carbon occurs during its construction, in the manufacture of materials. A huge 11% of global carbon emissions are caused by construction, 60% of which comes from steel, cement and rubber production. Workspace largely manages to avoid these emissions because it mainly redevelops buildings rather than builds them from scratch. “By not completely demolishing a building we’re helping on that front,” says Jamison.

For its new builds, Workspace is prioritising ways of reducing embodied carbon. At new site Brickfields in Hoxton, the company reused 65% of the existing concrete foundations. Research is ongoing into low-carbon cement and steel as well as alternative building materials, but it may take time before solutions are readily available to the building trade.

As for refurbishment, a recent project at 60 Gray’s Inn Road bagged Workspace its first ever Silver SKA rating, a method of assessing the sustainability of materials used during fit-outs. The refurbishment project saw 100% of the stripped-out materials recycled, all materials diverted from landfill, any new products sustainably sourced and energy-efficient air conditioning and lighting installed.

This is only the start. “Over the next couple of years, we need to work with our supply chain and really look at the carbon footprint associated with all the materials,” says Jamison.

By signing the net zero commitment, Workspace has shown that it is serious about tackling climate change. Look out for the release of the company’s science-based targets next year.

To hear more about Workspace’s commitments to sustainability visit the Doing The Right Thing hub on the website to read case studies, policies, awards and more.